Shard of Glass
By Alaya Dawn Johnson
14 February 2005
Part 1 of 2
That day, my mother picked me up from school, wearing the yellow sundress and shawl I remembered from our trip with Father the year before. She looked just like she did most days back then—a glamour queen, a movie star ("Just like Lena Horne," my friend Chloe had once said, "only darker—oh, sorry, Leah!"), but today her beauty somehow had a harder, more defiant edge to it. I could smell the expensive Dior perfume as soon as I opened the door, which surprised me, because my mom was usually fastidious about not getting perfume on her clothes. She was wearing her bug glasses—huge dark things with lenses that bulged out like fly eyes and reflected my face like a fun-house mirror. She had tied a yellow silk scarf around her hair and was taking deep pulls on a cigarette held between two immaculately manicured fingers. Only I knew about the nicotine stains she carefully covered with her special order "forest sable" cream each morning.
Tiffany, a stupid but vicious senator's daughter who I had the misfortune of sharing a classroom with, suddenly dashed from inside the school, her face flushed.
"Hello, Mrs. Wilson," she called. Before my mother could respond, she giggled and ran back to three of her friends waiting beyond the door. I could hear them laughing, but I was glad I couldn't understand their words. They were all fascinated with my mother—the black housekeeper who dressed like Katharine Hepburn and drove a Cadillac, whose daughter's "light toffee" skin indicated that she might just like her coffee with a lot of cream.
Sometimes I hated those girls.
"Get in the car, Leah," my mother said. Her already husky voice was pitched low, as though she'd been crying. That made me nervous. Why was she here?
"Ma, Chloe was going to show me her dad's new camera. Can't I go home on the bus?"
My mom pulled on the cigarette until it burned the filter, and then ground it into the car ashtray—already filled with forty or so butts. She always emptied out the ashtray each evening.
"Get in the car, Leah." My mom's voice was even huskier as she lit another cigarette and tossed the match out of the window.
I sat down and shut the door.
We rode in silence for a while. Despite her shaking hands and the rapidly dwindling box of cigarettes, she drove meticulously, even coming to a full stop at the stop signs. She never stopped at stop signs.
"Ma . . . is something wrong?" I asked hesitantly.
Her fingers tightened on the wheel until her knuckles looked even paler than my skin. "We're going on a trip, Leah," she said finally, jamming on the brakes at a stop sign.
Was that why she had chosen to wear that outfit today? "A trip? Where is it this year? Are we meeting Dad soon?" My heart sped up at just the thought of seeing him again.
"Charles," my mother corrected, deliberately. "You know you can't call him 'Dad,' Leah, I've told you a hundred times. And no, we're not going with . . . Charles, this time." Her voice caught on his name and for a second I thought she was going to cry.
A cop behind us leaned angrily on his horn. My mom's head jerked around so quickly I could hear the bones in her neck popping. We had been sitting in front of the stop sign for over a minute. My mom cursed and the car lurched forward. A minute later, after the cop had turned away, she seemed to relax a little.
"Did something happen to Da—Charles? And can I still go to school tomorrow? I have a geography report and, well, . . ."
I trailed off. My mom didn't even look like she'd heard me. After checking over her shoulder again even though the cop had long since disappeared, she pulled onto the highway.
"They can't know we're gone yet," she muttered to herself. "I'm just being paranoid. They won't be looking for us for hours. . . ." She shook her head and took off her sunglasses. The face she turned to me scared me more than anything—her mascara had run and her eyes were glazed and puffy. I knew my mom cried, of course I did, but she had always tried to hide it from me before. Now . . . what could have happened to make her cry so openly?
"Is he . . . dead?" I asked, suddenly terrified.
Her mouth twisted in a bitter half-smile. "No. No, Charles is most certainly alive. Leah . . ." She sighed, and handed me a thick leather-bound book.
"Don Quixote," I read out loud, pronouncing the second word only after careful deliberation. "What is it?"
"It's a present. One of your father's books. There's something inside. . . . Why don't you look, Leah, before I lose all my nerve?"
My stomach clenched, but I flipped through the pages. Somewhere in the center, I realized, part of the book had been hollowed out. Within a bed of cut-off words and ragged paper edges nestled the strangest piece of glass I had ever seen. Its beveled surface was pitch black—but unlike any other glass I had known, it didn't reflect light at all. In fact, it seemed to suck it in, so the page right beside the glass was so dark I could hardly read the print. The shard was shaped like an isosceles triangle with a chipped top—so lopsided it could only have been broken off from a larger piece. But someone had melted copper along the edges so they wouldn't cut. I looked at my mom, but she was staring doggedly at the road and wouldn't meet my gaze.
I picked up the glass and held it in front of my right eye.
"Ma!" I screamed, "Look out! You're going to hit her!"
The car swerved violently and my head knocked against the side window. Momentary pain lanced through my skull, exacerbated by screeching tires and a chorus of car horns. We pulled out of it seconds later. I looked frantically out the back window to see if she had managed to avoid hitting the woman sitting in the middle of the highway.
There was no one there.
I turned back to Mom. Her hands were trembling so badly she had dropped her cigarette, but she didn't seem angry with me. "Don't believe what you see through the glass," she said softly. "That's what he always said to me. I should have told you, but I never saw anything. . . . I didn't realize that you would."
"This is Dad's?" I asked.
"It's yours now, Leah, but . . . promise me you'll never show it to anyone else. It's our secret, okay?"
I stared at my mother. The worn copper on the outside of the shard was biting into my sweat-slicked palm. I didn't know what else to do but agree.
"I promise. Ma . . . are we going on the trip now?"
"When are we coming back?" I was almost too afraid to ask the question.
"I don't know. Not for a very long time."
Very carefully, I put the shard back inside the book and shut the cover.
"Where are we going?"
"I bought tickets to Rome this morning," she said, "but that was just to lead them off. Is there anywhere in the world you want to go, Leah?"
I thought about the geography presentation I would never have the chance to give. We were each supposed to do it on a different country. I didn't really know much about mine—I had only picked it because it was cute and small.
"Luxembourg," I said.
My mom just nodded. She never asked me where it was. To this day, I still don't know if she had ever heard of it, but she nodded just the same.
At the airport, she went into the bathroom alone. When she came out, she was no longer an anomaly, a black movie queen in a white woman's clothes. The woman who left that bathroom was not my mother—she was one of the invisible thousands, a black woman in gray, serviceable housekeeping clothes and a scuffed but sturdy pair of white tennis shoes. She had pulled her nappy hair back in a bun, washed her makeup off of her face. Now, her bloodshot eyes just looked like part of the uniform.
"Your dress . . ." I said, struggling to keep myself from panicking, breaking down. I had always known my mother used to be a housekeeper, but I had never understood what it meant until now. "Charles . . . gave it to you, didn't he? Where . . . ?"
My mom's eyes were hard, but I knew she wanted to cry too. "I threw it out," she said.
And when I followed behind her, carrying along the bit of luggage she had dared to bring, I was no longer the daughter of a woman who looked like a dark Lena Horne, I was just a nappy-headed brat of uncertain paternity, whose possessions had suddenly been reduced to three sets of clothing, a book, and a shard of glass.
I was twelve years old.
We were careless in Luxembourg—too obviously secretive or suspiciously casual. We hadn't yet learned that fundamental lesson of disappearing: it's not enough to just vanish, even to a place thousands of miles away; to truly disappear, you must blend in.
My mother cried each night and I knew she kept a picture of my father in her bag, but the face she turned to me every morning was as hard as my piece of glass. She never asked me if I wanted our fugitive existence, but the idea of letting them catch us didn't occur to me until much later. She never really told me what had happened that day she wore the yellow dress, but I knew my father and his family were chasing us because of something she had done. Somehow, it didn't matter. I loved my father, but he had been like a smiling shadow my whole life—not a real person, just a grainy four-color facsimile. A man who sent me fancy clothes and jewelry on my birthday under fake names, visited me and my mother at strange times of night and then vanished for months on end. No, I loved my father, but my mother owned my soul. How could it have been otherwise?
Three weeks after we arrived in Luxembourg, my mother and I huddled together for warmth in a reeking alley behind an expensive French restaurant. The window on the side of the building was a bit too high for either of us, but I could see through a gap in the curtains when she hoisted me up. Inside, a man who looked sort of like my father, only with less hair and a bigger belly, was slowly sipping a glass of fifty-franc wine as he watched the front door with lidded eyes.
"Is he still there?" she whispered.
"On his third glass of wine," I said, softly as I could. "The waiter keeps coming back, but he won't order any food. I think he's waiting for someone."
"Us, probably. Just like that damned family to spend a small fortune feeding us before they throw us in jail."
"Who is he?" I asked.
I could practically hear my mother's frown. "Your uncle," she said, finally. "Henry. He's part of the family business."
"What's the family business?"
"Money. Politics. Mostly money." She sounded bitter, but I didn't quite understand why. Despite the confusion of the last few weeks, the glow of adventure somehow still hadn't worn off for me. I guess that I couldn't imagine my father actually hurting us. The danger was something only my mother understood—she knew what she had taken, and how much they would risk to take it back.
She had spied him around the corner when we were walking back from the market. We had cowered behind the gigantic loaves in a baker's window as he walked past and into a restaurant. Luckily, Mom had insisted we take our bags with us wherever we went—if they had traced us all the way to Luxembourg City, then surely they would have found our tiny second-floor apartment by now. They would expect us to flee the city, and were probably watching every possible method of transportation for just that eventuality. So, we hid in the safest place we could think of—behind the restaurant where my uncle waited for us, sipping his expensive wine.
"Leah," my mom whispered, "my shoulders are getting tired. I'm going to put you down, okay?"
The door in the front of the restaurant opened. "No, wait!" I said. Two men who didn't look anything like my father brushed straight past the maitre d' and sat down in front of my uncle. The two newcomers spoke quietly for a few moments, but whatever they said made my uncle livid. He slammed his glass on the table, and some wine sloshed over the rim. He stood up, tossed a few francs on the red-stained table cloth, and stalked out of the restaurant.
"Dammit!" he cursed as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. "I always told Charles that pet bitch of his would get him in trouble. You're sure there was no sign of them? Or the glass? Did you check the rooms?"
They had stopped in front of the alleyway, the three of them making long shadows in the flickering streetlights. My mother and I pressed ourselves against the wall.
"I turned the rooms upside down," one of the other men said. "Had to pay the landlady for two nights just so she wouldn't call the cops. I mean, somebody'd obviously been there, but they didn't leave anything behind. Not even a toothbrush."
"Did you show the landlady their pictures?" my uncle asked.
The second man nodded. "She wasn't sure about the woman, but she said it looked like the same girl."
My hands slid to my jacket pocket. The coat my mom had bought for me in Luxembourg was made for someone much bigger, and its pockets were deep enough for even the fat book to fit inside comfortably. I don't know why I took it out—I hadn't dared look through the glass since that near-disaster on the highway. But curiosity gripped me. Why did my uncle care so much about this glass? What would it show me if I used it to look at him?
"They can't have left yet," my uncle was saying as I pulled out the glass, hands shaking with every heartbeat. "I have to get back to Richmond for a fund-raiser, but I want you to stay here."
I held it up to my eye. My mom's face was drawn with panic, but she didn't tell me to stop. "Comb the whole damn country if you have to, but find them. And the glass."
Something seemed to shudder in the lamplight. A tall, thin white man wearing a bowler hat and a pea coat held the limp form of a little girl in his arms. My uncle was leaning against the side of a blue car, sweat running from his forehead into his eyes. He had hair, I realized after a moment, and his stomach didn't hang over the edge of his belt. This younger version of my uncle swayed unsteadily, but his face was a mask of contempt. The two men were yelling at each other, but I could only hear oddly warped snatches of sounds, as though they were at the other end of a long, twisted corridor. Suddenly, my uncle lurched from the car and shoved the other man backwards. He stumbled and dropped the girl. When she fell limply to the ground, I realized that she wasn't breathing. Rage flared in the other man's eyes and he leapt onto my uncle, wrestling him to the ground. Even drunk, my uncle was much stronger. He wrapped his hands around the other man's throat, his face contorted with fury.
I had the curious sensation of leaning closer, even though the glass was flush against my eye.
". . . money . . ." I heard the other man say, and then some more words that were too distant and garbled to make out. ". . . papers, you killed my daughter! Why . . . money . . . I swear . . ."
My uncle slammed the man's head viciously on the ground once, and stood up. "I'll give you . . ." He walked around the car while the man rolled on his side and retched in the grass on the edge of the road. The man gently wiped some of the vomit off the girl's arm, which was beginning to stiffen.
I glanced back at my uncle and bit back a gasp; he was holding a gun. The other man barely had time to bleat before the bullet caught him in the neck. Blood pulsed in a macabre spray as he convulsed. My uncle tossed the gun in the car and drove away. When I tried to turn and follow him, the scene dissolved into a thousand smaller images, so loud and clamoring that it hurt just to look at them. I put down the glass.
My uncle was looking into the alley. For a terrified second, I thought that he had found us, but he seemed to be staring out blindly, lost in thought.
"Um . . . Senator Richards? Are you okay?"
My uncle shuddered and began walking away. The two other men hurried to keep up with him.
My mother looked at me. "Where . . . do you want to go, Leah?"
I thought for a minute.
"Japan," I said, finally.
After of four months of grueling, terrifying overland travel, which nearly exhausted our modest supply of money, we took a ferry to Osaka. On the way, my mother dared to purchase a small Japanese learner's dictionary, although she bought ones for German, Dutch, and Korean as well, just in case my father's family caught our trail. Once, on a crowded local train in northern China, I thoughtlessly opened my father's book. I was about to pull out the glass when my mom slapped my hand away. The look she gave me made me want to melt into the seat. It was hard to always remember who we were and what we were hiding from.
My mother and I had mastered some rudimentary Japanese phrases by the time we arrived, although we soon discovered that most of the locals were too busy staring at us to bother wading through our mangled Japanese. Mostly, we got by with hand signals. Once, I remember, young girls walking to the trains after school crowded around my mother, shyly asking if they could touch her hair. Even in that large city, we were anomalies, walking circus exhibits who couldn't even speak properly. My mother felt profoundly uncomfortable there, I think. We left after just a few weeks, traveling by ferry and local train to one of the most remote areas in Japan: the Kerama islands, just to the west of Okinawa's main island. The war had ravaged this place, you could see it in the faces of the women in hitched kimonos who hacked at the sugar cane or in the occasional mortar that washed up on the rocky beaches. My mom found a job as a housekeeper in the only hotel on the islands—not a hotel, really, just a modest two-floor inn with Japanese-style furnishings and a window where the locals liked to pick up their lunches. Almost despite ourselves, we began to settle into a routine, reassemble our lives from the pieces my mom had scattered that day she picked me up from school. The line between my mom's eyebrows never entirely disappeared, but as the weeks passed and she began to hope that we were finally safe, I saw her begin to smile again. Once in a while, I would catch her staring out at one of the magnificent island sunsets, her nappy hair ruffling in the wind, and I would be reminded once again of how beautiful she was. Even here, in this island in the middle of nowhere, she stood like a woman who wouldn't quite forget that she had once been a glamour queen.
The main school was on our island, but my mother thought it was too dangerous for the other kids to get to know me, even here. So I stayed behind, often helping Sato-san, the owner's wife, batter and fry the fish and vegetables for lunch. In the mornings, I would wake up early and go with her husband (also Sato-san, which sometimes got confusing) to the docks, where we would wade in the water up to our thighs with buckets to catch the crabs as they ran in from the tide. On our way back we bought the first catch from the fishermen and then hauled it all back to the inn on a rickety wheelbarrow. My mom didn't speak more than she had to, but I had been starved for conversation for months and my Japanese soon became fluent.
The Satos had two boys, one six and the other about my age. On weekends, their father would take us out on his small rowboat and we would sit for hours, catching fish. The boys had been afraid of me at first, but after a few weeks it seemed that they had forgotten I was a foreigner, let alone an American. Koichi and I would run around the island together, with Yuki tagging along behind when we let him. We found all of the island's secrets—the grottos with the best crabs, the beach with the deepest water, the cliff where you could sometimes see the humps of huge whales arcing above the waves at sunset and dawn. And then, one day, Koichi and I found the island's greatest secret of all.
It was sunset. Koichi and I scrambled in bare feet over the top of an unfamiliar cliff on the western side of the island.
"Sun," I said in English, pointing to the rapidly sinking red ball.
Koichi grimaced. "Do we have to do this?" he asked.
"I told Sato-san I would teach you English. What's she going to say if you don't know any new words?"
So I taught him a few more: stone, cliff, beach, crab, adventure. He repeated them good-naturedly, and I tried to correct some of his pronunciation as we walked along the rock.
"We have crab adventure on stone beach," he said slowly.
I clapped my hands and laughed. "That's good!" I said. "Say that to your mom and she might let us share one of the manju she got from your aunt."
"Never. She saves all of those for Yuki, the spoiled brat." He paused before a small outcropping and put his arm on my left side, so I couldn't get past.
"You know," I said, "we should really get back before the sun goes all the way down. I have to do your math homework, remember?" Koichi hated homework and my mom wanted me to get an education, so I had ended up practically being his tutor.
Koichi nodded, but he didn't move. His broad face had a curious look to it, as though he were staring at me through a tank of water. I shifted uncomfortably.
He kissed me. Out of sheer surprise, I staggered backwards. Instead of hitting the rock, however, I fell through a hole. Koichi tumbled down on top of me.
We untangled ourselves and looked around. The cave was fairly large, considering its small, hidden opening. For a few moments the descending sun shone directly into the crevice, illuminating the back wall of the cave.
Koichi and I saw them at the same time.
The cave was littered with human bones.
It looked as though these people—whoever they were—had not been disturbed since they died. In one corner I saw a heap of pathetically tiny bones nestled near the ribcage of someone I could only assume had been its mother. My breath began sticking in my throat.
"Where are we?" I asked.
Koichi looked at me. That strange fish-aquarium look had left his eyes. Now, inexplicably, I only saw anger.
"These are your bones!" he shouted.
Before I could even ask him what he meant, he picked up a jawbone and tossed it at my head. I caught the grisly token and watched him rush out of the cave. I should have followed him—I knew how dangerous it was to be stuck on the rocks after the sun had gone down—but I was angry and confused. I brooded for nearly an hour, until the sun had disappeared and the moon had come up to replace it. I could smell the encroaching storm clouds, but still I didn't move. Who were these dead people that surrounded me?
And then, when I heard the first distant rumble of thunder, I finally remembered how I could find out.
I pulled the glass from the book and held it to my eyes.
For a long moment, nothing happened. Then, with an almost physical lurch, I was in a different world.
A tall man stood in the mouth of the cave, carrying a paper lantern in one hand and a knife in the other. Three others huddled inside: a woman clutching a baby to her chest, and a little boy just about Yuki's age.
The man looked out of the crevice, as though he was searching for something, and then turned back, shaking his head. "They'll be here by dawn, they said. We can't . . . we can't let ourselves be taken." Their voices still sounded distant, but not so garbled as when I had looked through the glass before.
"Did you see them?" the woman asked. She looked dazed with terror. "Are you sure they're coming? They could miss us, couldn't they? We could just hide up here until they're gone, no one will find us—"
"Quiet!" the man said, his voice hard as a slap. The baby began to cry and the little boy held onto his mother's skirts, quietly snuffling.
The man walked closer to the woman. "We have no choice, Eriko. What do you think the Americans will do to us when they get here? It's better for us to end it now, with dignity."
Slowly, she nodded. He bent down to kiss her, and as he did so I saw him move the knife just above her heart. She leaned forward.
So did I.
It felt as though I were moving through a mountain of sand, but desperation and terror pushed me through. "No," I shouted, in both Japanese and English. "Don't do this!"
And somehow, the woman heard me.
As the blood blossomed around the hilt of the blade and ran down the front of her kimono, she turned her head and met my eyes.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. Her voice was sad, but so calm it was incongruent with the blood and her screaming children. "You don't belong here. Why wake this up?" She slid off the end of the blade and collapsed on the floor. The high-pitched screams of her children seemed to have receded—I could only hear the woman. Her husband sliced the neck of the boy first, and then the infant.
"Why not let it fade?" she said as she cradled her dying infant on the floor. "Why won't you let it fade?"
"I'm sorry," I whispered. I couldn't feel my throat, but my voice was hoarse. Was I crying?
I had gone so far that time, it took a while to pull back out. Just before I lowered the glass, I had the strange impression that I glimpsed my father. He seemed sad and worn, but in some strange way, it made him look even more handsome. I realized that I had nearly forgotten his face.
After I put away the shard, I crawled out of the cave and tried to shelter myself from the pelting rain under a small overhang nearby. I fell asleep clutching the book to my chest, crying for the woman in the cave and wishing I could see my father again.
"Shard of Glass," by Alaya Dawn Johnson, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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